2016 has been an epoch-defining year. Amongst its victims, allegedly, has been ‘truth’. It was truth after all, that was so grossly, so publicly undermined during the Brexit and Trump campaigns, ushering us into the age of ‘post-truth’ while stamping its entry into the Oxford dictionary with ceremonious pomp.
What follows are some scattered thoughts, attempting to ground this peculiar moment:
New media exemplifies profound information fragmentation, and when combined with the disorientation of globalization, has inverted reality by making it harder to grasp while we retreat to a more secure, nostalgic past on our screens. Instead of ushering a new age where access to the truth becomes increasingly democratized, the digital revolution has allowed half-baked beliefs to spread like wildfire into an ever-expanding cascade of disinformation.
This departure into techno-fantasies is further interwoven with economic and social insecurity; skewing Nietzsche’s ostensibly postmodern maxim of “there are no facts, only interpretations” to mean that events that transpire are just narratives, where lies can be excused as ‘alternative POVs’ or ‘opinions’, with personal biases amplifying certain voices while drowning out others that solicit painful dissonance.
No debate over the recent years has exemplified this descent into the rabbit hole of information relativism more than Syria. The regime’s mass tortures, starvation sieges, barrel bombs, use of chemical weapons, targeting of hospitals and aid workers have been challenged (and in some cases, flat out denied) in order to foster a ‘balanced’ account of events. If one thing can be agreed upon, is that no one can agree upon the parameters for honest dialogue; or simply put, the facts.
The key, perhaps, is not to ponder ‘post-truth’, but the notion of our reliance on ‘objective facts’ as the source of where our relationship to reality lies. This reality is seen to have now undergone a radical shift in the realm of doxa – the public sphere of opinion – which has been taken hostage by emotional sentiment. Increasingly, criticisms of ‘post-truth’ have knee-jerkingly targeted a postmodern discourse surrounding cultural relativism, and by extension, a key intellectual progenitor: Nietzsche.
When Nietzsche proclaimed “God is dead”, he was warning Western Christendom that God – the guarantor of objective truth – could not sufficiently carryout its ideological function anymore. ‘God’ was a regulatory idea that supervened over all other localized truths. With the advent of the Enlightenment, Truth as ‘belief’ was displaced for a more empirical placeholder, that of Truth as scientific, and thus, ‘objective’ fact.
Nietzsche would equally berate the supposed rationalists and objective knowledge-seekers of his time. In Beyond Good and Evil, he provoked:
What then is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished, and which, after long usage, seem to a people to be fixed, canonical, and binding. Truths are illusions which we have forgotten are illusions – they are metaphors that have become worn out and have been drained of sensuous force, coins which have lost their embossing and are now considered as metal and no longer as coins.
For Nietzsche, truth was not so much relative as it was untrustworthy; ahistorical and de-contextualized claims towards a static ‘objectivity’ were to be rigorously questioned.
According to a contingent perspectivism, we agree on things not because propositions are ‘objectively true’, but by virtue of sharing the same perspective and inhabiting the same variable context. When it comes to grand narratives like religion and politics, consensual agreement is conspicuously absent: people occupy different perspectives, digesting reality and their place in it in various ways. These perspectives are each shaped by the biases, desires and interests of those who hold them, and necessarily affect the optics by which they interpret the world.
The problem with the concept of ‘post-truth’ when it enters politics is not that it implies what existed previously as ‘pre-post-truth’ politics. It is the category of fact, not truth, that is to be found wanting. ‘Facts’, as objective measurements of reality expunged from ideology, have taken a sound beating following the financial crisis, and plunged any appeals to expertise into the deepest trenches of suspicion. After all, the supposed neutrality and value-free judgements of so called experts had been duly exposed, their pretence of factual objectivity merely window-dressing for a cosy alignment with the ruling ideology.
So how did politics transform from the messy terrain of struggle into a technocratic form of managerialism? In order to do so, one side had to win convincingly, and it did following the Cold War: cue the “end of history”, replete with all its shibboleths; the horizon of possibility dispatched for what Roberto Unger called the “dictatorship of no alternatives”. Under such circumstances, it became permissible to utter anything, even the truth, without it mattering the slightest. Politics now moved beyond the dimension of truth, joining its siblings “post-democracy”, “post-racial” and other cadavers.
Its not even that there is necessarily a disproportionate rise in the volume of lying in politics. Rather, there has been a contemporaneous shift in political imaginaries since the crisis of 2008. It is this ideological context, in which we evaluate truth-claims, which directs our desire to apprehend facts and twist them to the extent where it materially benefits the claimant. Hence, the £350 million NHS funding pledge Vote Leave bus or anti-immigrant rhetoric (“Mexicans are rapists”), furnished with statistical embellishments and inevitable dog whistles, wielded a much stronger impact upon those who tied up their grievances with a detached ruling establishment and culturally alien foreigners, who were seen as competition over resources during times of punitive austerity.
The monstrous worship of ‘facts’, tied up with technocratic wonkery and managerial politics, has then given way to an era of unabashed populist demagoguery: Putin, Modi, Trump, Farage, Le Pen. Evidently, they are not technocrats nor wonks; instead, they hope to replace the monstrous worship of facts with the monstrous worship of power. Theirs is, in Lacanian terms, a master’s discourse – the struggle for domination, rather than the technocratic university discourse – that of worshipping ‘objective knowledge’.
Neoliberal governance, after all, assumed that it knew what we wanted. Under its neoclassical economic framework, the polity are reduced to arid models of utility maximization, wherein all legitimate desires ultimately pivot upon rational-choice seeking. This kind of politics, in assuming that it had solved the source of our desires and in turn only had to effectively regulate it, stunted any dialogue with political truth, setting the stage for its re-emergence under the symptomatic guise of ‘post-truth politics’.
The contemporary shift towards social sadism is reflected most acutely in online culture, distilled to its purest ideological posturing: trolling. The ‘alt-right’ have come to embody this phenomenon most vividly. It brushes off gestures towards noxious racialism by adopting an ironic dispensation to wring its hands clean from any sordid implications. “You just don’t get it” goes the standard rebuke. It understands its liberal opponents well, incessantly provoking and honing in on their bad conscience and virtue-signalling. Witch-hunting via online harassment is employed as a popular strategy to hound ‘Social Justice Warriors’ and other moralists, while branding beta males as ‘cucks’.
The transgressive enjoyment of publicly stating what is not said openly, taps into what Lacan terms jouissance – the desire to go beyond the limits of socially accepted discourse. Even when Trump is fact-checked for lying egregiously, his supporters think he is demonstrating an important truth by exposing the liberal media establishment. This capacity and desire to play the troll and witch-hunter is what underpins Trumpism at its core, and what much of the critiques of ‘post-truth politics’ tend to gloss over.